“The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena… who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly.” – Theodore Roosevelt
To call Clay Risen a man who spends himself in a worthy cause is to pay him in silver what he’s owed in gold. Previously a senior editor for the New York Times Politics page and current obituaries reporter for the newspaper of record, Clay holds an indispensible position as the person responsible for immortalizing notable individuals from all walks of life.
That, however, is not where his efforts end. He’s also one of the country’s leading authorities on whiskey. In that capacity he’s currently on his third book covering America’s native spirit, the subject of today’s review, Bourbon: The Story of Kentucky Whiskey.
In the book Clay tackles the task of taking readers on an abridged history of Kentucky whiskey. A noble experiment quite unlike the original; in writing about this history Clay manages to widen the typical purview of the topic to be more inclusive. Touching at times on the often underreported contributions of minorities and women, the book unfurls an easily digestible tale of Kentucky whiskey’s history and updates readers on some of the latest developments in the form of upstart distilleries and innovative production methods.
After making mention that the earliest archaeological evidence of human settlement in the state dates back to 9500 BCE, Clay begins the story in earnest with the 1774 founding of Harrod’s Town, the first permanent English settlement in Kentucky. We learn that distilling and farming essentially went hand in hand from the very beginning, as it was so ingrained into the early settlers’ way of life that few even bothered to keep records of their stills or sales.
Operating a still and producing alcohol was simply a means of making use of excess corn and having a commodity to barter with (or consume) that wouldn’t spoil. In explaining all that excess corn, we also learn that Kentucky’s climate and terroir are uniquely ideal for the growth of the grain, which goes a long way in explaining why it became such a successful region for whiskey production.
The first section of the book covers this early history, including a brief mention of the potentially groundbreaking contributions of enslaved people, and elucidates the impact of several influential figures that are responsible for making bourbon what it is today. With regard to the latter point, Clay peppers the book with “Spotlight” sections that offer succinct coverage of some of bourbon’s preeminent players. I personally found the contributions of James Crow to be enlightening, and indicative of the fact that, despite many brands bearing the name of these foundational figures, their full import still exists in relative obscurity to the contemporary consumer.
Another figure whose impact looms over both the early pages of the book and bourbon at large is Colonel Edmund Haynes Taylor Jr. (we’re told he adopted “Jr.” to distinguish himself from an uncle of the same name) known to many as one of the driving forces behind the Bottled in Bond Act. His involvement with the government set standards for whiskey that are still upheld today, and which encouraged distillers to age their whiskey longer.
In addition to telling the history in an easy-to-follow and earnest way, it’s these “Spotlight” sections throughout the book that really shine. While the book is largely bereft of extensive details, Clay is at ease telling such an expansive story in small bites, and he never gets bogged down in minutiae. He simply outlines the most noteworthy developments, using these “Spotlight” asides to expand on key individuals and punctuate points.
With credit to how informative these asides are, they also open some doors that are left unexplored. Clay at times hints at the aforementioned impact of enslaved people, making note of it just enough to spark genuine curiosity before demurring to the unfortunate sparsity of the historical record. Examples abound in the early going, whether it be influential figures who owned or employed slaves (such as Elijah Craig or Jack Daniel’s former boss Dan Call) or those who indirectly benefited from their family owning slaves.
In repeatedly making note of these truths Clay touches on a critical, if unflattering, part of the story that other historians regularly opt to omit. Despite Kentucky’s Union ties and American whiskey’s current climate of increasing inclusivity, there’s an undeniable history of racist tropes in advertising and uncompensated exploitation that we would do well to acknowledge and openly discuss as the industry aims to evolve.
For that reason I was pleased to see credit given to everyone from the Shapira family (Heaven Hill’s founders who have a Jewish heritage) and Kaveh Zamanian (an Iranian immigrant and Rabbit Hole’s founder), to Marianne Eaves (the first female master distiller in Kentucky since Prohibition) and Eboni Major (the first African American blender in Kentucky history) throughout the book. In covering the totality of the story and not just the anodyne bullet points we’re able to learn more accurately about the Kentucky whiskey industry and how where it’s been informs and effects where it is today.
The book switches gears from a general overview of Kentucky whiskey’s history to the science of distilling and an accounting of the different styles of American whiskey. Though it’s a brief section, it’s obviously a vital one that Clay quickly and efficiently outlines. Progressing then to advice for tasting and collecting whiskey, we soon reach the bulk of the book which contains a distillery-by-distillery examination. Beginning with “The Old Guard,” we’re given concise coverage of several legacy distillers, then “The New Establishment” which goes over the rising stars, and finally “Craft Whiskey” and “Non-Distilling Producers” which round out the group.
There is insightful information throughout each subsection as Clay discusses everything from distilling practices to company histories in a way that creates both appreciation for and intrigue over their differences. Making mention of their relative production capacity and respective brand ethos allows you to better understand the context of each company within the tapestry of the Kentucky whiskey scene. It’s an industry full of all types of people with varying goals, though all carry with them the desire to bring their philosophies to bear in their own way. Examining so many distilleries with different experience levels, backgrounds, and aims really underlines that point.
The book concludes with a “Beyond the Bourbon” section wherein we learn about some key companies that complete the production puzzle. This includes two cooperages who provide a great deal of barrels for the Kentucky whiskey market, one of the most prominent farms which supplies distilleries with their grains, and the most venerated producer of whiskey stills. With a glossary of terms and a directory of all the companies mentioned in the book at the very end, our journey is complete in an impressively vast but easy-to-absorb 288 pages.
I managed to finish the book in a single day, as the writing is lucid and engaging, and every section is interspersed with fantastic images by Luke Sharrett that capture the beauty of so many of the liquids and locations discussed. I’ve yet to make mention of the impressive presentation of the tome, which comes in a magnificent box with a pullout drawer containing an intriguing ephemera set. Complete with reproduced distillery maps and blueprints, rare bottle labels, and historical photographs, I found the extra ornaments to be more knickknack than necessity and, though they do contribute to the high production value and heft of the packaging, I’d prefer it if they didn’t contribute to the heft of the $100 price tag.
Exceptional asking price aside, Clay Risen’s latest book is a meticulously researched contribution that bears the benefit of his extensive experience. Due to that experience, and the treasure trove of supporting narratives he’s able to draw from, in daring greatly to cover such an expansive topic Bourbon: The Story of Kentucky Whiskey is ultimately a triumph of high achievement that expertly lays the foundation for further exploration.